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Theodore Hodapp, APS Director of Education and Diversity
I have been closely watching the statistics on female participation in physics for more than a decade. During that time I have heard countless claims of “where the problem lies” and how we can address the low representation in our field. To be sure, things have improved since the time I was an undergraduate, but alas we seem to be stalled or even losing ground with undergraduate female participation. So, one of my goals has been to understand, as well as possible, what the situation is, and where we might apply pressure to the system to make sure everyone who wants to study physics can, and that young women feel encouraged to enter and stay in the field.
There is interesting data from a variety of sources, but my most recent discovery is from the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA. This survey asks first-year students to indicate what field they intend to obtain a bachelors degree. Before seeing this data, I was convinced I would see a larger fraction of women at this stage then those who ultimately obtain the degree (about 20%). Nope.
Twenty percent seems to be where things begin in higher education, and it persists through all degree stages (according to the Department of Education), and on to assistant professor hires (according to AIP). To me, this indicates the importance more than ever of educating high school physics teachers — teachers who can deliver the message to their young female charges that studying the subject is fun, rewarding, relevant, and that in fact they might be pretty good at it! There is evidence that they are dissuaded even earlier (actually back to elementary school), but high school is where they actually start to form realistic ideas of what they might “do” with their lives.
So, if you are wondering what you can do to impact this issue, I recommend finding out how to educate and support more high school teachers with a solid physics education, and the right tools to excite students about the subject. If you are unsure about this, I recommend checking out PhysTEC or reading a recent Back Page piece I wrote with Zahra Hazari (at Florida International University) in APS News (slated to appear in November as I write this). Lets see what we can do to make sure more young women get encouraged to study physics. They might be our next physics majors, our next engineers, or just really good problem solvers in whatever they choose to do – all good!